By Ross Ewing, Moorland Director at Scottish Land & Estates

(Video highlights from the parliamentary session can be viewed at the end of this blog)

After a long build up, the first stakeholder evidence session on the proposed Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill was held at the Scottish Parliament this week.

At a meeting of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, members of the Grouse Moor Management Review (Werritty) Group provided oral evidence followed by stakeholders giving their views on sections 1-3 (glue traps); 4-5 (wildlife traps); and section 8 (SSPCA powers) of the Bill.

I was pleased to represent Scottish Land & Estates and its members, whilst Alex Hogg MBE was also in attendance representing the Scottish Gamekeepers Association. Other contributors represented NatureScot, the SSPCA, the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission and the British Pest Control Association.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the evidence session was the disconnect that exists between how various politicians and organisations believe the legislation will operate and what is actually proposed to be written in statute.

In broad terms, trust seemed to be a key theme, whereby estates, land managers and gamekeepers should trust other parties to take a common-sense approach to how they implement licensing legislation.

Yet, as we all know, trust can count for very little when grouse moors are faced with hostile campaigners who object to their very existence.

One such example are the issues around imposing unique ID numbers on traps to register them to a specific individual.

For the vast majority of keepers who work on a grouse moor, interference, tampering and sabotage with legally set traps is a common occurrence. There can be many reasons why traps are vandalised, but should a gamekeeper set a trap legally only for it to be interfered with and then reported to relevant authorities, under the current proposals, there is a very real risk that grouse moors could see their licence to operate suspended. The operator could also see his or her licence to trap suspended.

In that regard, one point that Alex and I pressed heavily during the session was the need to make it an offence to tamper with, interfere with and sabotage a trap – something that should come with a penalty very similar to a land manager not setting a trap legally.

In their evidence on how they examine possible licence restrictions, the NatureScot representative made clear that they take an even-handed approach to imposing penalties and will only do so where there is firm evidence to support such a decision being taken.

Despite the cordial working relationship that most of our members enjoy with NatureScot, something I put firmly on record, we cannot ignore that there is a chasm between what it is believed will happen in practice and what the legislation proposes.

The legislation as drafted would provide the power for NatureScot to suspend a licence on the basis of an official investigation being established and crucially – without being satisfied that a relevant offence had been committed.

Even if we accept the current assurances provided from NatureScot, the reality is that they hold very little weight in the long-term. People come and go in organisations, especially in government, and future NatureScot staff may decide to take a less even-handed approach in future years.

And perhaps most importantly, the current drafting also would place NatureScot under severe pressure by anti-grouse moor activists and politicians who won’t want to see a ‘common-sense approach’ being taken, but instead advocate the most damaging sanctions possible against grouse moors – and would continue to question NatureScot at every turn on why they are refusing to use the full breadth of legislation at their disposal in the event of any allegation being made.

We only need to look at the recent example south of the border where substantial media attention was given to over 1,500 reports of illegal burning made to regulators following a call for action to members of the public by organisations including RSPB, Greenpeace and Wild Moors. Only one complaint was found to be a technical breach of the regulations, where a fire set on heather growing on shallow peat had encroached onto heather growing on pockets of deeper peat.

If these reports were to be levelled in Scotland and we assume this Bill had passed unamended into law, NatureScot would be entitled to suspend muirburn licences while suspected breaches were investigated. The phrase ‘guilty until proved innocent’ springs to mind.

There were also deliberations at the committee session regarding the use of snares and I put forward our case about the importance of retaining humane cable restraints to manage predation.

Retaining such an instrument will ultimately support efforts to tackle the biodiversity emergency, with options in the predation management toolkit already significantly reduced thanks to the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Act.

Finally, there was a robust exchange around the inappropriateness of affording the SSPCA enhanced powers to investigate wildlife crime.

There are several issues with this, including the ability and knowledge of SSPCA staff to properly investigate an allegation without potentially compromising the work of Police Scotland.

Another foremost concern is the ability of the SSPCA to act as an impartial investigator. Across social media, senior staff have expressed prejudiced views on a range of matters, particularly on the use of snares – a completely legal land management tool. I took the opportunity to make the committee aware of these postings and explain why land managers cannot have confidence in the SSPCA to act as an honest broker. SLE is firmly supportive of tackling wildlife crime, but the only body responsible for that should be Police Scotland and if additional resource is needed for the force to investigate wildlife crime, then this should be provided by government rather than relying on a charity which has a clear advocacy agenda.

Further sessions take place in parliament next week, with SLE Legal Advisor Ashley McCann and myself providing more evidence on various aspects of the Bill. We will continue to put forward a strong argument based on the significant testimony provided to us by our members who know how best to continue managing Scotland’s iconic landscapes for years to come.

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